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Style & Culture

Ramping up the stakes of his sport

By taking a flying leap over the Great Wall, American skateboarder Danny Way hopes to get the Chinese to share his passion.

April 24, 2005|Leslie Gornstein | Special to The Times

For starters, China already has its favorite Western sports all picked out, xie xie very much. It's no secret that the Chinese prefer team sports and love their basketball. Even in rural villages, it's not uncommon for posters of American basketball stars to outsell those of Jackie Chan.

And soccer remains the No. 1 sport, with 3.5 million of the country's roughly 600 million fans regularly attending matches at the stadiums and countless more watching on TV, according to the mobile communications company Siemens, a soccer league sponsor here.

But China does love its national champions. Houston Rockets all-star basketball center Yao Ming, for example, remains a virtual demigod. "In China, any sporting event winner is a hero," notes Warren Stuart, an avid skater who lives in Hong Kong and runs the online community HKSkateboarding.com. Hence the fresh crop of government-tapped skateboard heroes.

One champ, Che Lin, was recently snatched up by Quiksilver to represent the brand in China. Quiksilver also signed Johnny Tang, a Chinese Canadian who recently moved back to the People's Republic.

And, Wei notes, many parents are returning from study or work trips abroad and want a more Westernized life for their kids. "In the past, children had only one way to measure success -- studying in school," he says. "Now they can be sports stars."

Officials such as Wei prefer to discuss only the cultural benefits of creating a People's Republic of Half-Pipes. But skateboarders like Stuart suspect less lofty motives. "China is doing all this because [skateboard] events make a lot of money," he says. He points out that China holds a yearly X Games-style event that attracts major corporate sponsors. "It is obvious that it is very profitable."

Ask Beijing locals about the skate scene and they'll point you to a couple of promising skate parks, at least one thriving skate shop and some well-run websites by Beijing enthusiasts.

What they won't be able to show you are hordes of actual skaters.

The discrepancy is hard to explain, even for experts. Take Beijing skater Sun, who has run his own shop here since 1992 and has followed Way's exploits via the Internet. His hair in a spiky brush cut, a bomber-style leather jacket hanging loosely on a rangy frame, Sun best embodies Beijing's street skating scene. He runs the eZone skate park in the city's densely populated south end and hosts occasional competitions there. When he finally met Way in January, during the American athlete's first trip to mainland China, Sun looked star-struck.

In 1990, when Sun first started skateboarding as a college student, he says he could count perhaps 20 other Chinese as fellow enthusiasts. Those numbers haven't exactly exploded in the last decade. "In all of China, there may be about 50 professional skateboarders right now," Sun estimates, sitting at Beijing's Hard Rock Cafe basking in the afterglow of meeting Way. "And maybe 200 amateurs."

But urban China has all the right ingredients to nurture the sport -- most important, plenty of concrete to conquer. Even the media, all of which must be blessed by the Chinese government, have been practically begging kids to give skateboarding a shot.

"For sheer expanses of concrete, it's hard to beat Beijing," sang one recent article in the China Daily. "Skate on, comrades!"

So what's holding back swarms of potential rippers from trying a sweet move across Tiananmen Square? Would you believe, as Sun puts it, shyness?

"In China, most kids are fans of skating, but they mostly like to watch," he says. "Many young people like to watch skateboarding on video. And maybe they stand there and hold their boards."

Way hopes to pop a backside 180 on that attitude.

Contact Leslie Gornstein at Calendar.letters@latimes.com.

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